Join us as David Fox shares captivating stories about the birth of LucasArts and the enthralling narratives behind some of the industry's most beloved classics.
In an era where pixels ruled the screen and creativity sparked the imagination, a few names stand out as trailblazers in the gaming industry – David Fox is undoubtedly among them. As a co-founder of LucasArts, Fox played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of gaming, leaving an indelible mark with iconic titles that continue to resonate with players worldwide. Join us as he shares captivating stories about the birth of LucasArts and the enthralling narratives behind some of the industry's most beloved classics.
Can you share about your journey into the game development and what inspired you to become a game designer?
Yes. In the mid-1970s, I was doing counseling with people. I was a counselor helping people and talking about problems. There was a point where I realized that I was only able to help maybe 12 people, a dozen people a month. It just felt like I should be able to do more. I wondered if there's a way to create a game experience that wouldn't be targeted the same way, but at least might give people some insights to themselves at some point and help them to become better people, know more about themselves.
I was imagining an interactive Disneyland. You go to a theme park and instead of having the same exact experience every time, it would be interactive. It would be tailored for you and you would learn something by the time you went through. If that's the target and here's where I am now, what do I need to do? First, I need to know programming. I need to know about games. It seemed like a good first step for my wife and me to create a computer center.
A couple of years later, we had opened a non-profit microcomputer center in 1977. It started with 10 computers and ended up with about 40. Kids would come in and take classes and adults too. We'd work with schools and take the computers to them. Part of it was me learning programming and teaching my wife; she, in turn, taught classes. Probably the most experience I had there was porting text adventure games from Adventure International, from the Radio Shack TRS-80 to the Apple II.
And looking at the code, seeing where there are bugs, I found some bugs, and immersing myself in that. And then the last thing I did there right after that was write a book on computer animation, a computer animation primer that featured the Atari, I was using the Atari computer. And right when I finished it, one of the members of the computer center who worked at Industrial Light & Magic told me that there was a new games group starting at Lucasfilm. And I immediately called them up because I had interviewed them as part of my research for the book. So I already had a connection into their organization. And that's how I got the job.
You were one of the co-founders of LucasArts. It wasn't named LucasArts yet but anyway. How did you envision the company's role in shaping the game industry in its early life?
I've always felt uncomfortable with the term co-founder because it wasn't my idea. But I was definitely one of the early members. So I was employee number three. It was originally called the games group. And it was a small group within the computer division, which was really a research group within Lucasfilm. And their task was to find out ways to use computers to make movie making better. And our task was to find new ways to make games and make them better.
So the leader of the group originally was Peter Langston. He also had a research background. And he was looking specifically for people who didn't have a lot of commercial gaming background. He didn't want people from Atari. He wanted people who didn't have a preconceived notion of how games should be created. And so I was perfect for that because I didn't have any experience. So all these things kind of lined up.
The other part was that Atari was funding this with a million dollar payment initially. And my book was on the Atari. And I already lived in the right county. I lived close by. So everything was kind of like perfectly lined up for me to get that job.
I love the Star Wars movies. And my thought was if we could ever do anything half as good or 5% as good as that in games, that would be an amazing achievement. But that was a really high bar to hit, especially starting out from scratch.But that was kind of the long range goal was to make immersive experiences that were as moving maybe as Star Wars was to people in theaters. And they gave us, for the first two games we did, rather than saying, hey you better hit it out of the park. Hit a home run or have a huge success. They said, don't worry about it. We're going to do an experimental throwaway games. Do your experiment. See what comes. If it's good, we'll see about getting it to market. If it's not, then it's a good learning experience. And that was kind of the process as we went forward.
Your work on Maniac Mansion was groundbreaking. Can you tell me about the creative process and challenges faced when creating Maniac Mansion?
So, that game was designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. Ron spent about a year building the engine, the Scum creation utility for Maniac Mansion, the Scum engine, and the scripting language to make creating adventure games a lot easier. Because the one before that we did was Labyrinth. It was all done in 6502 coding and was just excruciating. And the scale of what he wanted to do, it just wouldn't have been possible to do it in code like that.
So, by the time I came on, he had just finished the first pass of the language. The game was designed, but not nailed down. They knew what the rooms were, they knew who the characters were, what the overall story was, and what some of the puzzles were. So, I got to help with nailing those down. I pretty much just went with their design and then we came up with issues. I go back to them and say, hey, I have to do this, but this doesn't make any sense. How do we want to handle it? We have an impromptu two minute brainstorming session and I go back and implement that.
So, I probably wired up most of the house myself and then did a lot of the cut scenes. Ron also did a lot of the cut scenes. This was probably one of the first games that used cut scenes, especially in this way where you could have action moving the story forward in another part to let you know what was happening and what the urgency was and what was going on that we had to do. I thought that was brilliant. I think there had been the use of the word in one or two other games earlier, but this is probably the one where maybe it became most famous to our adventure games having these cut scenes.
So, I think it was very collaborative. The design wasn't so nailed down that I couldn't have a lot of input. Obviously, there was no text. There was no description of what each object was. Those were the things I would write and what would happen if you interact with them. I went outside of what was accepted a few times, like the little bit with the hamster in the microwave oven. Okay, that was me. So, it was a really fun project to work on.
I think I was on it for about six months and I went on to my own game, which was Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. But, Ron, because of the complexity of having multiple kids that you could choose in the beginning made it much, much more complex to make sure that you could actually win with any combination. It was really hard for testing. I, fortunately, wasn't a part of that. It was a lot of hard work to get that ready.
What influenced your approach to storytelling in adventure games?
I think that Ron was a huge influence. When we did Labyrinth, it was based on a movie. So, we already had the story and we had to figure out a way to tell it without spoiling the movie, but also without having seen the movie give you too much or any of an advantage. So, it was kind of like a parallel universe within the same area where the movie took place. This one and Zak McKracken were both original, completely original stories.
So, it was really for Zak, which I could talk more about since it was my game, really. There was initial brainstorming with a guy named David Spangler who is essentially a spiritualist and he knew all about way out there concepts. We spent a couple of days at his house, kind of going through all the new agey, psychic and crazy, some of them were very crazy theories that were out there. I found a way to try to combine them all into this one game by having puzzles and everything. So, he wasn't really involved with the puzzle part. That was me. I came back with the ideas and wove them into a story. It took maybe two or three months to do that. And then presented it to the other game designers. Ron actually, I think he liked it, but he thought it wasn't funny enough. He thought it wasn't wacky enough.
We had a meeting where we all talked about how to kind of bump up the wacky factor, the crazy factor. That's when Zak changed professions. First of all, his name was Jason in the original concept. His name became Zak, which is more unusual. Rather than being a mainstream reporter for a big newspaper, he became a tabloid reporter where they already were printing lies and made up stories. So, we could do anything in there, but as it turned out, all the stories he got involved with were real within the universe of the game. But that meant that we could get really crazy. The design was identical. It just gave it a little twist into crazy land.
You already mentioned Labyrinth. So, Labyrinth and even The Last Crusade were adaptations of the movies. How did you balance the two to the source material while creating and engaging gaming experience?
Yeah. So, I kind of mentioned a little bit about Labyrinth, but it was, I think, a different approach for Indy. The first thing we did was had a short meeting with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I remember it being us leaning against couches in the common area, so it wasn't like a formal meeting on tables. And we just said, we asked them, you know, first of all, can we kill Indy if we wanted to? And they said yes, you can. We asked them, can we go outside of the parameters of the movie? Can we find new locations and stuff? Steven said, yeah. In fact, he started suggesting all these ideas in South America. And I said, no, we don't want to go that far, but we just want to make sure we have the leeway. And I think the only thing was to make it feel like Indy, so don't change him as a character.
Well, we had seen two movies. We read the script for the third one, because the movie was still being produced. And we did what we could to keep it true and add a little bit of Lucasfilm Games humor in there. We had some irreverence that wasn't there in the original. And then the same thing, anything which was a simple solution in the movie, if we wanted to reuse that set piece, we had to come up with a way to either randomize it or make it what we had to learn.
A good example would be the scene where he enters the library. In the movie, there was an X marking the spot, and he sees a big X on the ground. He picks up the extension and starts pounding a hole. And we wanted the same action in pounding something, but we had to come up with a way where we had to solve where to do it. So I think we had nine letters or numbers, through our numerals, and you had to figure out what, there was a hint that told you which one it would be, and you did that. I don't remember what happens if you choose the wrong one, maybe he just won't do it. I don't remember now.
And, you know, parallel paths, so like, we did a biplane, which was in the movie, but we also had other ways that he could get there. So we had kind of multiple paths that you could win, either by dialogue trees, saying the right thing, or by giving an object to the right person, or by engaging in a fistfight. And we wanted people to replay the game and try all of them, so we ended up doing a scoring system, where you got unique points for each solution that you tried. And that way you could get a perfect score if you went through multiple times and played it.
The other piece I was just thinking of was, because we made the game based on the script and production stills, or photos that we saw, we actually had one or two things in the game which turned out to be cut from the final film. There's one in particular where there was a scene in the zeppelin, in the script, where he knocks out the radio operator. However, in the movie, that scene was cut. And there's a line where indie is kind of rushing in, wearing some clothing, maybe the radio operator caught a uniform, and says something, and they see that the zeppelin is turning around from the shadows moving. So I guess they found the radio operator, and it made no sense in the movie because there was no previous scene. But if you play the game, you knew what they were talking about.
You worked on both licensed games and original IPs. How does your approach differ when working with an existing universe versus creating something entirely new?
The choices are narrowed, so you need to be creative within those choices. When you can do anything in the story, it can be overwhelming until you kind of narrow in on what the threat is that you want to keep. I think I remember the design process for Zak being more difficult for me than the design process, say, for Indy, where, well, part of it was because we had three of us who were brainstorming together, me, Noah Falstein, and Ron Gilbert, because we had a really tight deadline for the movie to come out and want to get the game done.
So all three of us were on the team, but that made it really collaborative, and we were always available for brainstorming, which was great. And we had to go fast. We couldn't spend three months on design. But we also had the framework of all the scenes in the movie that we could choose from and say, well, which ones can we bring, which ones should we just cut out, the whole opening sequence, two opening sequences, the whole thing with young Indy having that incident when he was a kid.
We cut, but we referred to it with the opening credits with a circus train going by. And then there's another one with Indy finally finding the the cross of Coronado on a ship, and the ship ended up sinking and him getting dunked in the water. And we don't mention anything except when he first walks into the game, he's all dripping wet. And we said, why are you all wet? And he said I'm not going to talk about that. But that was a reference to that.
So we kind of gave a humorous nod to some of those things, but without having to do it. And there are other things we just said, OK, this is a great opportunity for a maze. So let's turn the Zeppelin and the underground below Venice into a maze, and places where we could expand it, places we had to contract it. I think the third maze was the Nazi castle. It was more a matter of what should we cut, because there were so many things in the movie that we could use, and which things should we expand on in a way that made it more game-like. So I remember that being an easier process than Zak. In the case of Maniac Mansion, I wasn't there when they were doing the original design, so I'm not sure exactly how hard it was for them.
In your opinion, what makes a great adventure game? How do you approach designing puzzles and narratives to create a memorable experience?
I think I would probably use the last game I did, what worked out, which is Return to Monkey Island. And I feel like that is kind of a culmination of everything that we've all learned about adventure games. How do you construct it? How do you construct the puzzles? One of the things is you really don't want someone solve a puzzle before they know they're supposed to be solving it. So if the puzzle is, where do you find the knife, and the knife is just lying there and you pick it up without going through the process of solving it, then there's no winning really.
So create some gates, creating some areas that we closed in the beginning of the game, we closed certain rooms because we didn't want you going in there before you knew what you had to do, and what your purpose was. So we gradually opened it up as you found out what you were supposed to be doing. The first thing you're supposed to do is go see the pirates, the pirate leaders.
So every time you try to walk Guybrush off path from that, he'd say, I really need to go see the pirate leaders, and we'd block him and do that. And then once we felt like you had the background of what your goals were, then we could open up the rest of the universe. Another is, we really don't want any arbitrary puzzles. That's something I think we did pretty well with on this, and something that's really important in the games I did, where it's okay if they're tough, but you want the player to be able to figure it out.
And you want them to have that win, that aha moment when they actually put the pieces together, and you can give them hints along the way to help them with that, but you don't want them to finally get the solution and say, I never would have thought of that, that's ridiculous. That makes them angry at the game, and kind of makes it feel like the game designers didn't take the player into consideration.
The way I see it is that when I do a game like that, I want the player to get through the entire game. I want them to get the whole story, and I want them to be slowed down with the puzzles, but not blocked to the point where they get frustrated for too long. Frustrated for a few minutes is okay, or whatever their tolerance is, but not for weeks. Not to the point where they have to go online to look it up. So we also had a hint system built in, which helped you, and was contextual, so that we knew where you were and what things you were likely to ask about. I think that helped.
So it kind of removed some of the friction of getting through the game, also knowing this person hasn't found something after a certain amount of time. Maybe someone should suggest it, or Guybrush should say something or whatever to kind of get the person back, giving them a to-do list of things to do. So they have an automatic list of steps they have to configure, and then when he realizes that the original goal is no longer possible, we cross it out and put the substitute goal in there, and then sub items on that list. I think that was really helpful for people to play.
The new Monkey Island was released to the universal acclaim. Despite claims that adventure games are a dying genre, players still show immense interest in this genre after 40 years. In your opinion, what is the reason behind the enduring appeal of adventure games?
Well, I still think it's a subset. It's like a smaller part of the market than probably the mainstream games, which are probably mostly shooters. But to me, it's the same appeal you experience when going to a movie and seeing a story told; here, you're in the story, helping to make it happen. You want to have emotion and heart. I think we did a really, especially Dave Grossman, who was the main writer, and Ron did a fantastic job of making you feel emotion.
I mean, I cried, even though when I got to the very end a couple of things happened. I was welling up with tears, and I've heard that from so many people. So, it wasn't, not from sadness, but it just got me. And that's remarkable to have that happen in a game, I think. And you laugh, and you have all different emotions. So, you want to feel connected to the characters and care about them and feel empathy towards them, and want to have them win. And you win with them by helping them do those things. So, I think that's partly why movies are still a thing.
So, how did it feel to work with these talented people again after all those years?
Yeah, well, I've been in touch with Ron and Gary over the years, so it wasn't like out of the blue. Ron and Noah Falstein brainstormed with me on the Ron Gilbert game that I worked on, and I've brainstormed with them on other stuff, and we've had playtests together on each other's projects. But not formally, like these two games were. When I saw that Ron and Gary were doing Thimbleweed Park as a Kickstarter, I made it very clear to Ron really fast that I would love to be a part of this project. And he said, OK, well, noted, and if we get enough money from the Kickstarter, then I'd love to have you join. So, after they blew past their initial target, he invited both me and Mark Ferrari on, and that changed the focus.
Getting together with Ron and Gary for the first brainstorming session, which we did in person, was a little intimidating, because I wondered whether I still had whatever it was I had 25 years earlier. Because that was 2015 that we did that, and the last time we worked together was 1990. So, I think it felt a little awkward for maybe five minutes, and then something just clicked, and we're coming up with ideas, and just, OK, this feels really good, and we can do it.
And everything just kind of, like the time, evaporated. And it helped that we weren't strangers, we were in touch occasionally, but I think we just remembered what it was like to work together before, and we just fell back into that. And we had a shared culture, because we were both at the same company for a long time, and we knew what you could do. I knew, for example, that this was Ron and Gary's game, so I could throw out ideas and wouldn't be upset if they didn't like it.
You know, that was the idea. You say, how about this? How about this? Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn't, and that's kind of that process. So, it was safe. It wasn't like, that's a stupid idea, you should never...It's like, well, what if we do this? It kind of evolves, and there are probably some ideas where you all have the same thought at the same moment, and you really don't know whose idea it was until someone speaks up. So that was great.
How do you think the gaming industry has evolved since you started your career, and what trends or changes do you find most significant?
Oh, well, budget, team size, scope of the games. I mean, back when we were doing games in the 80s, typical team size was three to five people. Budgets were probably in the few hundred thousand at that time - hundred, hundred fifty, two hundred thousand, and then the games started getting more and more complex.
I think one of the reasons adventure games became more difficult is because as you had more storage, more animation had to be created, which raised the budget significantly, but the audience didn't grow equivalently. So they ended up costing more to produce, but not making enough money to justify that. So I think there was a point at LucasArts, where they started killing their adventure games that were in the pipeline around 2004, which was after I left.
And I think that, what I heard, was one of the reasons. Each one was getting more and more elaborate in terms of production costs and features, but they weren't bringing in more people, and they weren't commanding higher prices. So I think when we did Thimbleweed Park, one of the goals was to do it in the style of the old games, but with a modern idea of how to do that kind of a game. Even though it was pixel art, we did things that were cheating, like if you had an object that was a pixel art wheel, I could rotate it completely by code, and that was okay. A purist would say, hey, you're doing anti-aliasing on the object, because the space was a higher resolution space than the pixels were.
With Monkey Island, I think all the UI and everything else was thought of from scratch, clean slate, new art, new everything, and trying to match it to the gaming style of modern players, where they don't want 40-hour, 30-hour adventure games, they're really, really hard to play. They wanted something which has moved along a lot faster. I'm not a huge player, so I've read about some of the budgets and how many teams might work on a project and for how many years they might be on it for a AAA game, and I've never worked on anything close to that. I don't think I ever would want to, personally, it just doesn't sound like a lot of fun for me, creatively, to do that.
What's your opinion on the AI technologies or these machine learning technologies, and how could they affect or influence your work in the future?
I saw a talk this morning where one of the speakers said that we're not going back. The genie is out of the bottle kind of thing, you can't put it back in. How it evolves is probably very unpredictable. I'm sure there will be a lot of uses which are going to be really clunky and failures. Perhaps in the initial iterations, there might be large games with numerous non-player characters that start talking, saying things that make no sense or aren't constrained enough, or they're too obviously an AI and people start trying to trick them up, I don't know what's going to happen there.
I want to see it as a tool, but not one that takes work away from creative people. Here, AI writing a story for me will turn into a game that just seems like the wrong use for it. You still want people to come up with the stories. You might maybe come up with 20 stories and say there's a thread of something in that, let me pull that and do it. That might be a spark. If you're a writer, it might be a prompt to write a story. That might be an interesting thing to do, but then take it over. There might be some drudge work that isn't very fun to do that could be done in terms of art.
Maybe you come up with a design for a character and maybe have it modelled what it might look like in different poses and then work with that. I'd like to see it be treated as a tool to speed up the process for the creative team, but not one that replaces it. I'm sure we'll get both. We'll get people that just start using it and start looking like vanilla AI or something.